Thursday, November 24, 2016

Welcome to the Family

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Thanksgiving means different things to different people.  For some, it’s all about the food – turkey and dressing and potatoes and pie, probably an obligatory vegetable or two.  For some, it’s all about the football, especially if you’re a Lions or Cowboys fan.  For some, it’s all about the shopping, or at least getting ready for the shopping.  For some, including me, it’s all about the family.  Ann and the kids and I nearly always spend Thanksgiving weekend with family, both Ann’s mother in Blue Springs and my family in Springfield.
Of course, “family” doesn’t have to mean strictly blood relatives and in-laws.  Some of the very best families are the ones we choose.  Ann and I have friends in Springfield who, for years, have had a “family of choice” Thanksgiving celebration; they invite all the people to whom they wish they were related.  One of the best Thanksgivings I can remember was when Ann and I were in seminary.  We were stuck in Austin over the holiday, along with several other students.  So all the seminary Thanksgiving refugees gathered for a stunning meal – even on seminarian budgets.   
In all those examples, the Thanksgiving celebration is about much more than eating or shopping or watching football, even though any or all of those activities may take place.  The celebration is about giving thanks for who we are.  It’s about giving thanks for a shared identity – for our belonging together and for the tie that binds us together, with is nothing less than the love of God.
The reading this morning from Deuteronomy lets us know that, early on, the people of Israel had their own affirmation of shared identity.  Moses commands the people that, when they enter the land that God is giving them, they are to say thank-you by actively remembering who and whose they are – not just bringing something to mind but sacramentalizing that memory with word and action.  These people were not merely wanderers, though hard experience might have made them see themselves that way.  They were the people whom God has chosen to redeem from slavery and oppression, and brought through the frightening power of the Red Sea, and then stood by for 40 years in the wilderness, despite how the people didn’t exactly deserve it.  So once this covenant community comes into the land of blessing, Moses says, they are to take first fruits of that land – the choicest produce, some of the very best of what they’ve got – and bring it to God’s sanctuary as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  This serves to remind them not just that God is in charge but that the God who is in charge has blessed them beyond measure.  In fact, God has blessed them so richly in bringing them through the Red Sea and into a new existence that they are now defined by that blessing of redemption, that blessing of new life.  They have become a new people, and God expects them to act that way.
We have something similar happening here this morning.  We don’t usually have baptisms on Thanksgiving Day, but the happy coincidence reminds us that God also asks us to remember sacramentally who we are and then give thanks for it.  In just a few minutes, Charley, Hunter, Parker, and Monroe will come here to this tiny pool of the Red Sea, the place of dying to old ways of life and rising into new community.  It’s the same process of dying and rising that Jesus hallowed through the cross and the empty tomb.  Here, in this deceptively tame little pond of the water of life, we die with Christ and rise as new creations, members of a new family, the family of God.  So on this Thanksgiving Day, many of us remember that we, too, were adopted into God’s family at some point in our journey – maybe as one of our first steps, maybe later on in the hard-won wisdom of maturity.  And on this day, we, too, give thanks that we have been welcomed into the household of God and into the company of saints.
But that’s not all that we remember this morning.  On this Thanksgiving Day, we will join with our family members across time and space, as we offer our own first fruits of thankfulness and receive the real presence of the living Christ in a meal more divine than even my mother’s stuffing and gravy.  We will come to this altar, the supper table of the Lamb; and, through the power of prayer, we will actively remember our deep mystery:  that Jesus Christ comes among us in the offerings we bring here this morning, in simple bread and simple wine.  And through our active remembering, we take our Lord directly into our hands and onto our lips, being made one with him and with all our divine family members.  And as we do, we can’t help but be grateful.  It is no accident that the name for what we’re doing here this morning, and what we do every Sunday, is Eucharist, which comes from a Greek word that means – you guessed it – Thanksgiving.
So as these four little ones come to the waters of new birth, and as we come to dine at the banquet of the kingdom of heaven, here is my prayer for you:  Let the mystery go to work on you and remind you who you are.  You are a member of the family of God.  You are welcomed to come and take your seat at the table, invited to dine on the bread of life, and bound into a community that asks of you nothing less than your life, the commitment of your heart, day after day after day.  That’s who you are.  So as a member of the beloved family, offer to God your sacrifice of Thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Following a Messiah on the Move

Sermon from Nov. 20, 2016
Feast of St. Andrew, transferred
Matthew 4:18-22

I imagine our patron saint, Andrew, as a guy with tired, sore feet.  That’s true for all disciples and apostles, I suppose, because being a disciple and apostle means being on the move. 
Now, for we disciples and apostles gathered here this morning, that may not sound much like good news.  In fact, a call to be on the move may seem like the last thing we want to hear.  Many of us are emotionally and spiritually exhausted by the recent election and its aftermath.  I’ve heard from faithful people who long for a time after presidential elections when we stopped arguing, and tacked back toward the center, and tried to come together despite difference.  And I’ve heard from faithful people who no longer feel safe in their own nation, or in their own city, or even in their own church, because they fear what the recent shift in our political life will mean for them and for people they love.  We can wish that weren’t true, but we can’t wish it away.  If nothing else, we have to be present to pain, and listen to people’s frustration and grief, and walk alongside them through it.
And as we walk with them, we find ourselves on the move again – just like Jesus.  We always seem to find him walking alongside people.  All through the Gospels, he’s moving from one place to another, proclaiming good news and inviting people into it. 
That’s how I imagine the setting for today’s Gospel reading on this feast of our patron saint, Andrew.  Picture the reading as a movie scene.  It opens with a shot of two guys in their fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a lake, smaller than Lake of the Ozarks.  The sun is rising, and they’re beginning their day as they’ve begun a thousand days before.  We don’t know much about Andrew and Peter.  They’re not high-class types, but they’re not paupers either.  Basically, they have a small business.  They get up every day, and do their work, and sell their catch, and mend their nets, and get up the next day and do it all over again.   
Well, up in the corner of the movie scene, a figure comes walking slowly along the lakeshore.  It’s Jesus.  As he comes more fully into the scene, he looks over toward Andrew and Peter, out in their boat.  They’re close in, so they see Jesus coming.  And I’ll bet they know who he is.  Just before this morning’s reading, Matthew tells about Jesus beginning his public ministry in Galilee, preaching and proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).  He must have attracted attention, this local guy who’d decided he was a prophet, stirring people up and calling them to turn their hearts and their lives in a new direction.  So I’ll bet Andrew and Peter know who’s walking toward them in the morning sun. 
As he comes near, Jesus simply calls out, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).  And then, I imagine, he just keeps on walking.  So Andrew and Peter look at each other, wondering what to do. 
Now, maybe they had a miraculous moment of clarity.  Maybe they knew God was calling them to a life of discipleship and what that was going to mean.  But I doubt it.  Instead, maybe they were simply captivated by what they’d been hearing from this preacher and prophet who described a world of God’s love in contrast to the bitterness and injustice of the world around them.  Maybe their hearts burned with the possibility that such a world might be real.  Maybe they knew, if nothing else, that they had to find out more.  So, as Jesus keeps on walking, Andrew and Peter quickly row in, and get out of the boat, and jog after him down the lakeshore.  They follow him – not because they suddenly understand everything Jesus is about but because the hope of God’s beloved community sets their hearts on fire.  So they follow – which, by definition, makes them disciples. 
From there, they spend the next few years following this messiah on the move.  It couldn’t have been comfortable.  Following Jesus, they didn’t even know where they’d stay from one night to the next.  They ate based on the kindness of strangers.  They put themselves at risk from the Romans, who didn’t take kindly to wandering bands and their leaders who tended to look like revolutionaries. 
But Andrew and Peter also saw signs and wonders.  They heard good news that God particularly blesses those at the bottom of the scale.  They saw people healed.  They learned they could be so much more than they’d ever imagined.  They received Jesus’ power – power to be with people who suffered, and heal them, and speak good news, and cast out the demons that delude us into thinking we’re merely secondary characters in someone else’s story.  As followers of this messiah on the move, they had hope – hope that even the poor in spirit, even those who mourn, even the meek, even a couple of fishermen from Galilee could burn with the brightness of God’s purposes.  They began to see that they were bearers of holy light and that Jesus was sending them out to shine that light among others.
So, that’s why I think Andrew must have had tired, sore feet.  He started walking that morning by the lake, and I don’t think he stopped until his own martyrdom.  Different traditions say Andrew brought the good news to Ethiopia, or to Ukraine, or to Russia, or to Greece, where he was executed on an X-shaped cross.  Even in death, Andrew was on the move as his remains were reportedly taken to Scotland, for whom he became the patron saint – which explains why a bunch of people in Kansas City are wearing tartans and listening to bagpipes as they celebrate this saint’s day. 
As we march to the bagpipes this morning, we are Andrew’s spiritual descendants, ourselves following a messiah on the move for more than 100 years.  In 1913, the bishop sent people way out here to Brookside, on the outskirts of a growing city, because, as the bishop said, “our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field.”1  They started meeting in a back room of Wolferman’s grocery store at 59th and Brookside.  They bought property at the corner of Meyer and Wornall and settled there in 1922.  But even having found a home, the people of St. Andrew’s kept following the messiah on the move.  We followed Jesus to the neighborhoods around us, sharing the word about Dr. Jewell’s powerful preaching.  We followed Jesus as the city kept moving south, planting a church in Red Bridge in 1958, appropriately named for Andrew’s brother, Peter.  We followed Jesus to Haiti, building relationships there that have grown for more than 25 years.  We followed Jesus downtown to the Kansas City Community Kitchen, and down the street to Southwest High School, and east to the Grooming Project, bringing good news of dignity and hope in contrast to the world’s news that only the strongest matter. 
But we’ve only just begun following our messiah on the move.  A couple of years ago, you blessed me with the opportunity to take a sabbatical, one of the best journeys I’ve ever known.  I visited nine congregations in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England.  Each one, in its own way, was figuring out how to keep going on its journey to proclaim the Good News without tossing its tradition off to the side of the road.  From Seattle to Denver to rural Maryland to London, each congregation was learning how to reach the people around them in new ways while still honoring the tradition they had known and loved for decades (or centuries).  I was blessed to tell their stories and take away some lessons for other congregations hearing the call to stay on the move.  And today, we get to celebrate the fact that someone actually wanted to publish it.  The book is called Beating the Boundaries because I believe that’s what God is asking us to do – to go to the boundaries of church as we know it, and cross over into relationships with the people we find on the other side.
But we’d been hearing that call well before I went on sabbatical.  That’s what our Gather & Grow initiative is all about – following Jesus as he leads us among people in our community.  The worldly concerns of building designs and construction estimates sometimes distract us from the point of Gather & Grow.  The point is to take the next steps in a 100-year journey of connecting with people. You don’t have to be a statistician to see that fewer people go to church now than in years past.  OK, says our messiah on the move and his sore-footed apostle, Andrew.  OK.  That means we need to find ways to go to them and show them God’s love.  And that means finding new ways to “be church” for the people around us.  It means following Jesus across the street, enabling the Word to take flesh and dwell among us by engaging with people whom God brings our way.
Gather & Grow feels like a long journey, and we still have miles to go.  But that perseverance is part of our story, too.  I’ll bet guiding this church through two world wars and a Depression felt like a long journey.  I’ll bet building this worship space in 1952 felt like a long journey – one that took six years and three fundraising campaigns and still didn’t give them the building they wanted.  I’ll bet founding St. Peter’s in Red Bridge felt like a long journey.  And still, today, Jesus calls us to get out of our boats to follow him and fish for people.  Like our patron St. Andrew, we follow Jesus because that’s where our hope rests.  We may not understand every word that comes out of his mouth.  We may not know exactly where the journey is leading or how it’s supposed to look.  Sometimes, we may not be able to see much more than the world’s divisions and anxieties lying ahead of us.  We’ve been on this path for years already, and our feet may be sore.  But as Jesus passes by and says, “Follow me,” we say, “Yes, I will, with God’s help.”  So we follow him out of this nave, our congregation’s glorious boat.  And we follow him out the door, always trying to keep up with our messiah on the move.

1. The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives.  Page 10.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Pledge to Witness

Sermon from Nov. 13, 2016
Luke 21:5-19; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

It’s no great insight to say that we come together this morning in an anxious time.  Maybe “fearful” is more accurate.  That certainly applies to our national life.  Now that the election is over, we’re left to figure out how to govern ourselves in a climate of anxious division.  The divides are almost too many to name – race, class, gender, educational background, national origin.  Identity politics seem to be our only politics anymore, as people fear their voices won’t be heard any other way.
But anxiety and fear slither among us in other contexts, too.  Last weekend, several of us were in Springfield for the convention of the Diocese of West Missouri, the “annual meeting” of the Episcopal congregations in the western half of this state.  This, too, will come as no surprise, but much of the conversation there had to do with money and our fears about it for the future.  Many West Missouri congregations are not growing, and several are shrinking.  In fact, 28 of the 48 congregations in West Missouri had smaller operating budgets in 2015 than in 2014.  That affects the diocese as a whole because the amount of money that congregations pay to the diocese each year is based on their operating income.  (And just to say it out loud:  All congregations, including St. Andrew’s, pay money to the diocese; only a few receive grants from the diocese – definitely not including St. Andrew’s.)  It’s a familiar story, and one guaranteed to raise anxiety:  Diocesan revenue is declining while the need for ministry only grows.  So we have to assess ministries, prioritize them, celebrate what God provides, and steward the money as faithfully as possible. 
It’s tempting for us to allow all our divisions and anxieties and fears to spill over into our life together here, in our congregation, where we live out our faith day by day, week by week.  It’s tempting to think, “We’ve never faced times as challenging as these before” and then stress about what the future will look like. 
But in times like these, we have some friends we can turn to.  One of those friends is a sense of history.  It’s easy to say that our nation has never been this divided, and that’s probably true in terms of my lifetime.  But do today’s divisions really compare with the conflict over slavery, and a Civil War, and military occupation of the South, and decades of segregation and terror against black Americans?  I don’t think so.  It’s easy to say that our Episcopal Church is on its last legs because of declining resources and our reticence to share the good news of God’s activity in our lives.  But do today’s challenges really compare with nearly being extinguished as “the king’s church” after the American Revolution, or being called to resurrect ourselves and go out in mission across a new nation?  I don’t think so.
A second friend we have in this time fear and anxiety is Scripture.  Today’s Gospel reading comes from a part of the story called the “little apocalypse,” which shows up in all three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The part we heard today is just the first section, describing the coming destruction of the Temple.  After this, in Luke’s version, Jesus goes on to talk about the impending destruction of Jerusalem and, after that, the coming of the Son of Man to usher in the end of the age.  This kind of writing is called apocalyptic, which means to reveal something – and, for the people hearing it, to encourage them and exhort them to vigilance in their faith, even in deeply challenging times.  Encouragement and vigilance in our faith – yeah, that sounds about right for us, too.
So, in the reading this morning, Jesus not only encourages his followers and exhorts them to vigilance; he also surprises them with the claim that the world’s challenging times bring us an unexpected benefit – the opportunity to serve as witnesses.  Yes, Jesus tells his followers, you’re going to face tough times that will challenge your faith and maybe even shake your confidence in the things you’ve known.  But, he says, “this will give you the opportunity to testify … and I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:13,15).  The other reading this morning, from Second Thessalonians, picks up a similar theme, arguing that we can’t just sit on the sidelines and wait for Jesus to get on with the Second Coming; we have to get off our backsides, and attend to our work, and “not be weary in doing what is right” (3:13).  You bet life will be challenging, Jesus says – and you will rise to the challenge.  “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:19).
So, in a challenging time like this, we find a third friend, one that also might come as a surprise:  our congregation’s stewardship campaign.  Yes, you heard me right, the stewardship pledge campaign is your friend.  Today, we’re concluding our stewardship season and blessing the pledges you’ve offered so far.  Pledges will continue to come in between now and the end of the year.  As they do, we’ll make a budget for 2017, giving great thanks for what you will have provided as an outward and visible sign of God’s blessings to you.  I try to live by the conviction that what God gives us is sufficient, and abundant, and extraordinarily generous – and we will receive your pledges that way.  We will give thanks for the “enough” that God provides.  So stewardship is our friend in that sense, absolutely:  It helps us see that everything we have is on loan from God; and the practice of giving back bends our hearts heavenward, helping us remember who and whose we are.
But the call to stewardship in challenging times is also our friend in another way.  The call to be a steward is the call to be a witness.  The call to steward God’s blessings is the call to testify to those blessings.  Over the past few months, you’ve heard testimony from our own cloud of witnesses.  In the Messenger, you’ve read profiles of people who change lives through their work in the community.  You’ve read about ministries here that reveal the kingdom of God among us by forming us as Christians, by serving the world’s needs, and by worshiping the God who loves us more than we can imagine.  You’ve seen little, red and green sacraments of thanksgiving, the examples of our gratitude hanging on the apple tree in the entryway.  And you’ve heard the testimony of witnesses during worship.  You heard Oliver Carnes tell you why he serves as an acolyte and helps lead younger teens in youth ministry.  You heard Jean Kiene tell you how God has called her to serve and how Outreach work changes lives as it feeds her soul.  You heard Mary Brink tell you how our four weekly worship opportunities bring us into community with God and with each other.  And today, you heard Blake Hodges testify about why he offers his time, and talent, and treasure to God at St. Andrew’s. 
Now, you have to know that Blake isn’t just someone who tells his story well.  He is part of the quartet of witnesses who have given countless hours to expanding St. Andrew’s ability to reach the people around us through the Gather & Grow initiative.  Blake and Megan Hodges, and Sean and Sarah Murray – if any of us has the right to stand up here in frustration about the roadblocks Gather & Grow has hit, and tell us we might as well just turn this place into a lovely restaurant, it’s Blake and Megan and Sean and Sarah.  But that’s not what you heard from Blake.  In a time of anxiety, after literally years of work to hear God’s voice and realize God’s call to grow our capacity for mission – in a time of one blasted challenge after another – you heard Blake proclaiming gratitude, and confidence, and hope, just as you heard from our other witnesses.  It is Jesus’ call to faithful endurance and the endurance of faith.  And that call is not easy.  It’s no coincidence that in Greek, the word for “witness” is “martyr.”  The world will not tell us we are right when we proclaim gratitude, and confidence, and hope.  It will shoot us down every time.  And still:  “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.” 
So, in the midst of all the anxiety, how is Jesus calling you to be a witness?  I believe it boils down to this:  Jesus is calling you to know, and name, and live your faith.  At a men’s group meeting last week, we tossed around this really rich question:  If a Martian came to earth, and sat down next to you, and asked you what you believe – what would you say?  How would you name what you know and feel about God?  And then comes the next question:  Given what you know and feel about God, how does your life embody it?  How are you a witness?
That’s actually what a pledge card is all about.  It helps us testify.  It helps us answer the question, “How does my life embody what I believe?”  Jesus asks us to honor God’s loving sovereignty over us by remembering it in word and deed, across the compartments of our lives, through offerings of time and talent and treasure.  Your pledge is a pledge to act.  And, more specifically, it’s a pledge to act as a witness to the truths that the world will always deny: the truth that unity conquers division, the truth that hope conquers despair, the truth that love conquers fear.  These are the divine realities the world seeks to silence.  But we must not let it be so.  We are Christ’s witnesses, so we must testify.  We must live God’s light, and live God’s love, out loud. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After

I went on a walk early this morning, to take the dog out and to pray along with my daily podcast of Morning Prayer.  As it turned out, the dog and I stepped out the front door just as the sun was beginning to rise.  The eastern sky was lovely as new life arose, once again.
Election Day has come, and the nation has chosen Donald Trump as president.  For some, that’s cause for joy; for others, it’s not just disappointing but frightening.  “I wonder which Donald Trump we’ve elected,” one parishioner said to me this morning.  Will it be the one who moves across political lines pragmatically or the one who names categories of people to exclude?  People fear most what they don’t know – and this morning, there’s a lot about the future we don’t know.  And yet, the sun rose, another divine masterwork to welcome us into another day of opportunities for discipleship. 
When I pulled into the church parking lot this morning, I saw discipleship in action.  A new member of St. Andrew’s had spent all of yesterday at the church (beginning at 5:30 a.m. and ending after I left at 6:30 p.m.), helping us offer hospitality to the hundreds of voters who lined our halls.  This morning, the same man was outside the church, removing political signs from the yard and otherwise tidying up.  “This is a good thing for me to be doing today,” he said.  Service nearly always is.
Wherever you land on today’s continuum from joy to fear, remember: We are the Church.  No matter who is elected to any office, our sovereign is Jesus Christ.  He calls us to worship, to repent, to proclaim good news, to serve others, and to work for dignity, justice, and peace.  That was true yesterday; it is true today; and it will be true tomorrow.  First and foremost, ahead of any other allegiance, we are called to follow Jesus and be his body in the world, each one of us an essential member of it.
So take a moment to admire the sunset this evening, or the sunrise tomorrow morning, and ask how God is calling you to serve.